Storytellers vie to become Milwaukee’s champion

via The Moth
via The Moth

Milwaukee’s 10 best oral storytellers will gather at Turner Hall Ballroom Friday at 6 p.m. for The Moth’s GrandSLAM event where they will compete for the title of Story Champion.

The Moth first came to Milwaukee in 2012, but this will be the city’s first GrandSLAM. Originating in 1997 on the east coast, The Moth is a national non-profit organization that revived the art of oral storytelling. It celebrates storytellers of all levels from those carefully crafting their tales to those who are simply bursting to share their experience with the world.

Friday’s sold-out culmination of the past 10 StorySLAMs also promises a varied set of speakers ranging in both age and profession. Among them will be a doctor, a former ghost hunter, two artists and an ex-cab driver. Their stories will revolve around the theme “fish-out-of-water” and as in the regular StorySLAM competitions, participants will have only five minutes to tell their stories.

Leading up to the GrandSLAM Championship, monthly StorySLAM competitions were held at the Miramar Theatre. Speakers enter themselves and 10 storytellers are drawn randomly for the night.

At each event, 10 contestants are selected and given five minutes to tell their story. Any storytellers hoping to share can look to the next StorySLAM where the theme will be “love hurts.” For those too bashful to share their personal lives, people may enter themselves to be judges of the competitions.

Luckily for participants, Milwaukee is a community as varied as the stories told at the StorySLAMS.

“(The participants) are a diverse group of people ranging in age between their twenties to eighties in all different backgrounds and they gather to share their experiences in life,” Watson said.

An interesting aspect of The Moth events is the stories told on stage are supposed to be true. What you hear may end up being a big fish story, but it did happen and is part of the teller’s biography. Stories are evaluated by the judges on their ability to stay on time and on topic, as well as their truthfulness.

The reality of the stories brings the audiences and storytellers together in a special way.

“By the end of the show, you feel connected to society, until you get to the freeway, but for two hours you’re part of a true community,” said Christy Watson, a comedian and the emcee of The Moth StorySLAMs in Milwaukee.

This seems to be the real power of the stories told on the stage.

“There’s so much value bonding together … but you open up a person’s soul and get a glimpse of a stranger’s life,” Niki Robinson, Milwaukee StorySLAM producer, said.

Stories run the full gamut of human emotion with previous stories being about, “immigration, a family coming together over coffee and rescuing baby ducks from the sewer,” Watson said.

Thanks to such a different crowd, audiences are always provided new experiences.

“When you hear a story from somebody in Milwaukee, you are given a new perspective on the city you may not have had before,” Robinson said.

While the title of champion is on the line, the SLAMs are about the art of storytelling and connecting to people more than they are about winning or having the best story.

“It’s more than the competition, the competition is a side note. It really is cathartic, the sharing of experiences and knowing that you’re not alone is what really draws people,” Watson said.

The winners are after more than material rewards.

“Winners get a lot of respect and get featured on The Moth’s podcast … and earn a lot of benefits that aren’t really tangible,” Robinson said.

For Watson, the draw to taking part in the competition is about what the stories tell people about themselves.

“It’s a revealing experience for both the storyteller and audience,” she said.

Stories are, after all, how we best communicate and explain ourselves to each other.

“Stories are what make life interesting, and when you link about whenever you’re with people that what you do, you’re telling stories, you talk about the future, but mostly you talk about what has happened to you,” Robinson said.

The Moth provides an outlet for society’s stories and is a transformative experience. It teaches audiences about themselves and may even temporarily improve them.

“It’s a fantastic experience and has made me a better person, at least during the show,” Watson said.

The 10 outstanding storytellers will share their lives and experiences at the GrandSLAM and, at the very least, will temporarily improve themselves and perhaps their audience.